This article appeared in the June 2018 issue of Entrepreneurial Chef Magazine.
As a Bronx native, Mike Cordero was making New York style pizza’s at age 13 in a local pizza shop while mentoring under the iconic Italian restaurant figure Vittorio DiVivo. By 18, Cordero landed a position as a line cook at the famous Sardi’s restaurant and worked his way to headline cook, working directly with the owner Vincent Sardi Jr.
At the age of 20, Cordero was given the opportunity to oversee Italian Delight’s expansion into new territories and immediately took over as President of Operations. As President of Operations, Cordero was instrumental in positioning Italian Delight in highly visible, profitable venues including shopping mall food courts – a relatively new concept at that time.
After Italian Delight was sold, Cordero team up with Master Chef Sergio Castilloni to pursue his dream of opening a fine dining Italian restaurant, Bravo’s. There Cordero worked closely with Chef Castelloni to create authentic Italian cuisine.
After the success of the original Bravo’s, Cordero decided to open five more Bravo’s restaurants in the Washington Metropolitan area. Eager for a new challenge in 1995, Mike sold four of the locations to his partner and only kept the Bravo’s location in Fairfax to serve as his home base.
After visiting restaurants across the country, Cordero discovered a Brazilian steakhouse in New York, fell in love with the cuisine, and after months of consulting with a Brazilian chef Cordero chose Malibu Grill’s location in Falls Church, Virginia. Malibu Grill has been profiled in the Washington Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Restaurant News, Restaurant Magazine, Restaurant Institute, Restaurant Hospitality Magazine and on CNN as being the “hottest” new steakhouse in the United States. And Cordero was quoted as being one of the new trendsetters in the Washington metropolitan area.
From Latin Fusion to Tapas, Chef Cordero has taken his culinary visions to their highest level of success. As the Executive Chef and Owner of A-town, Barley Mac, Bronx Pizza, Don Tito, Don Taco and Primetime Sports Bar, Cordero is always on the move, defining and exploring new trends. And we had the pleasure of connecting with him to capture some pointed insights on building, growing, and scaling his success in the food business.
What’s helped you achieve such high levels of success in the food business?
My success comes down to my staff. I would not have been able to increase new business opportunities without having a great team.
What was a major business mistake you made early on that brought a tough but necessary lesson?
In my twenties, I had 42 pizza restaurants from the East Coast to the Midwest. While the growth of the pizza chain was successful, my focus permanently shifted from the substance and quality of each individual venue to the company’s expansion. I made the mistake of growing the chain too fast away from my home base. I should have focused more on the local units.
Can you describe the Mike Cordero “stamp” you have and maintain at your establishments?
I always strive to make the best and use the highest quality ingredients to set myself apart from the competition that has similar demographics. I’ve worked with an interior specialist, Yvette Irene, at all of my restaurants, and she incorporates what she calls an “approachable design” aesthetic. While each of my restaurants may differ in concept and cuisine, we like to place an equal emphasis on entertainment, functionality and delicious food. The creation of my MACNAC Hospitality group has garnered and maintained a reputation in Northern Virginia for growing quickly and for offering fun, upbeat dining and nightlife experiences.
How do you keep branding consistent at all your establishments?
Whether I am opening a taco, sushi, or American restaurant, I try to team up with a chef de cuisine that has experience in that particular style of cooking. Design and entertainment also play a major role in my branding and go hand-in-hand with the menu concept. My customers have come to expect a “wow factor.” At The G.O.A.T., we have smoke-box drinks, and that wow factor complements the ambiance with over 50 TVs and an arcade. Creating something special and unique is something I strive for at all of my locations.
I like to keep some form of consistency in my menus across the board. All of my restaurants use my homemade marinades, sauces and my hot sauce label Bronx Tale. We also sell Cordero Wines at each establishment. We have a strong Millennial following, and our specials really appeal to them. We offer extended happy hours, half-price menu items, live entertainment, bottle service and DJ giveaways. For example, bottle-to-table service allows guests to avoid standing in line at the bar.
With the plethora of ventures in the past few years – Barley Mac, wine label, hot sauce, The G.O.A.T., new concept Rockwood – how do you manage overseeing everything?
If you’re interested in growing your businesses at a rapid pace, you need to take on managing partners. I always say I’d rather own a small piece of the bigger pie. I used to feel the need to be 100 percent present, but I learned that taking on partnerships helped my employees be successful. When they’re successful, it allows our company to grow faster.
How do you evaluate new business opportunities before committing and moving forward?
There are so many young entrepreneurs taking the dive into the restaurant business. Some of them make it, and some of them fail. I love taking over existing restaurants. Before I move forward, I evaluate the existing restaurant’s demographics and research a cuisine and host of specials that fit the area’s market.
For those who aspire to diversify in various ways from a business standpoint like yourself, what’s your advice for them?
My advice for anyone that’s trying to get in the restaurant business is to go work for a successful small or medium-size restaurant company where you can gain lots of experience in lots of areas. Knowing and understanding all aspects and levels of the business is crucial. Lessons that you learn and advice you get from early on in your career will stick with you and determine your next move.
What do you look for in a business partner? Also, any red flags you look out for?
Having a business partner means you are establishing a long-term relationship with this particular person. I look for the following: integrity, passion, heart, and hustle. The ultimate thing I do to look out for red flags is to evaluate this person’s passion and hustle. Before I move forward with a business partner, I ask “would he or she be able to give you 80 hours per week to make the business successful?”
What do you look for when hiring individuals to join your management team? Also, any red flags you look out for?
When looking for people to join my team, I ask them where they would like to be five years from now. I do that because I like to invest my time in people that have long-term goals. A red flag for me is finding people that want to join my team for the sake of a paycheck. That usually means they’re not in it for the long haul. In order to build a great team, everyone needs to be on the same page.
Having scaled food businesses, what’s the hardest part about going from one to two locations and then two to several?
Having experience opening multiple locations after my third restaurant launched, I learned that I needed to take the best of the best from each of my restaurants and not start from scratch with an entirely new team. I needed to have a great sense of trust in my managers and employees. I created what I call a SWAT team to open any future restaurants. The SWAT team consists of the best managers and chefs, and I call them in when opening a new location. They go in for four weeks and do a hardcore training with individual employees.
For those dreaming of scaling to multiple locations, what’s your advice for them?
My advice for those dreaming of scaling to multiple locations is to set up their own very own SWAT team. Use your best personnel to grow into multiple locations. You have pre-established trust and security in their work and understand that they deliver. Why start with a new team?
If you were to start all over from scratch right now, what food business opportunity would you pursue today and why?
If I were to start over right now, I would not be bogged down to one concept as I was with my former pizza chain. The restaurant industry is an ever-changing business that requires you to keep up with new cuisines and new concepts. I feel tying yourself down to just one concept does not give me the leverage to own five different restaurants in a two-mile radius as I have now.
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